LOS ANGELES | Before a single frame of ''Spider-Man 2'' was shot, Sony Pictures Entertainment launched a global effort to protect its summer blockbuster from piracy.
During production, daily film footage was locked overnight in vaults. When Sony conducted preview screenings on its lot near Los Angeles, guests were subjected to airport-style identification checks, metal detector scans and surveillance by security guards with infrared goggles.
''Everyone got wanded at every screening,'' said Jeff Blake, the studio's vice chairman. ''Film reviewers, talent agents, artist managers, even Sony executives — including me.''
Each of the 10,000 theatrical prints was embedded with a unique digital tracking code. Sony also took the extraordinary precaution of delivering seven reels of film to each multiplex in two well-guarded shipments before its June 30, 2004, premiere at a minute past midnight.
One of those cinemas was the Loews Kips Bay Theatre in Manhattan. And somewhere in that first early-morning audience in New York City sat a bootlegger with a camcorder, the first link in a network of rampant global piracy.
Four hours after its premiere, a copy of ''Spider-Man 2'' was on the Internet. By morning, counterfeit DVDs showed up for sale in malls and makeshift stalls in the Philippines.
Within a week, street merchants were hawking pirated copies of ''Spider-Man 2'' in Scotland, Israel, Hong Kong, Peru and South Africa — and downtown Los Angeles. Within a month, Sony investigators had collected bootlegged ''Spider-Man 2'' DVDs from Australia, Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South America and the United States, nearly all of which traced back to the one copy made at the Loews Kips Bay.
''The lightning speed with which these copies spread around the planet was horrifying,'' Blake said. ''No matter how much you spend on security or what precautions you take, the grim truth is once a film gets uploaded on the Internet, suddenly it's everywhere.''
The global flight of ''Spider-Man 2'' illustrates one of the ugly by-products of the digital transformation of entertainment. Besides creating profitable new businesses, such as movie DVDs and downloadable music services, digital technology has created an unprecedented opportunity for leeching by commercial pirates.
The damage is hard to calculate. In many cases, the people who buy pirated goods cannot afford to buy $10 movie tickets or $20 DVDs. So the DVDs that sell for $1 or $2 in markets around the world are not necessarily replacing sales the industry might otherwise have made.
Nevertheless, the Motion Picture Association of America claims that disc and tape counterfeiting siphoned off $3.5 billion in potential revenue last year, more than the industry made at the box office in any country except the United States. And the International Federation of Phonographic Industries estimates that one of every three music CDs sold last year, or 1.2 billion discs, was an illegal copy.
''Piracy not only has an economic impact on our industry,'' said Dan Glickman, chief executive of the global Motion Picture Association and its U.S. affiliate, the Motion Picture Association of America, ''but it has an impact on the creative spirit in this country.''
Despite a growing number of raids and arrests around the world, entertainment industry executives say the amount of disc bootlegging continues to grow. That's because there is no shortage of eager bootleggers, as well as a variety of ways to cash in on piracy.
The shadowy network that brings pirated movies to market is elaborate and lucrative. In countries rich and poor, the rewards can be great and the risks minimal. Even small-time bootleggers can clear thousands of dollars a week. And when anti-piracy laws are enforced, the punishment is often light.
''Prosecuting these cases has been an uphill battle,'' said Leroy Frazer Jr., chief of the special prosecutions bureau of the Manhattan district attorney's office. ''Judges don't treat pirates as seriously as they do other criminals. They don't think pirates victimize anyone — particularly not the people who buy their wares. They say bootleg customers know exactly what they are buying.''
Movie piracy typically begins with the ''cammers,'' who sneak tiny video cameras into darkened theaters and surreptitiously film new movies. They are maddeningly hard to catch. Some are believed to be amateurs who record movies for fun, and others — a couple of dozen, investigators guess — do it for pay. For example, one professional cammer boasted in his diary that he made up to $4,000 a week.
The cammer's copy is manufactured into discs by two types of pirates: well-financed counterfeiters who use costly manufacturing plants to churn out tens of thousands of discs each day, and bootstrap entrepreneurs who burn hundreds of discs on home computers.
The discs ultimately are sold in malls, at market stalls and on blankets spread along a curb, or by roving peddlers who stash their wares in a bag. Many times the sellers are immigrants working for a flat daily fee. And the price typically is a quarter to half of what legitimate DVDs sell for, yet the profit margins can be higher than 70 percent.
In the case of ''Spider-Man 2,'' one opening-night cammer was spotted and stopped at a Los Angeles multiplex by a projectionist wearing night-vision goggles. But cammers can be ingenious, concealing their cameras under coats, in handbags or even in belt buckles. On opening night, three cammers were able to capture ''Spider-Man 2.''
The codes embedded in each of the film's prints — which were virtually invisible to the eye but could be detected by Sony investigators in the bootlegged DVDs — revealed precisely which theaters had been breached: the Loews Kips Bay and two others, in Montreal and Los Angeles.
The recording from the Loews Kips Bay made its way almost immediately into the hands of Pirates of the Theatre, a group of bootleggers that trades movies through the Internet. Less than two hours after the midnight showing ended, the group had uploaded the movie to a private site for online pirates. From there it spread to other private sites, public chat rooms and online file-sharing networks.
A prolific ''ripping crew'' — a secretive coterie of geeks who race to obtain bootlegs and post them online — Pirates of the Theatre put more than 90 camcorder-recorded movies online from May 2004 to July 2005, according to http://www.vcdquality.com , a Web site devoted to pirated movies and other goods online.
Although authorities have been able to penetrate a handful of movie ripping crews, they say they have no idea who runs Pirates of the Theatre, where it operates or how it gets its movies.
The Pirates' version of ''Spider-Man 2,'' like most videos recorded in theaters, was marred by a loud, steady hiss and the back of a theater patron's head bobbing in and out of the frame.
But that didn't make it any less marketable.
Most of the bootlegged ''Spider-Man 2'' discs were produced by disc manufacturing plants in Southeast Asia, China, Pakistan and Russia. Three-fourths of the 75.6 million pirated discs seized last year came from this kind of factory, the Motion Picture Association of America said.
Jon Healey and Chuck Philips are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.